My friends at Operation Black Vote and previously the Labour Party Black Sections have worked their butts off to help increase the number of African Caribbean and Asian members of the British parliament.
As a result the figure has risen from 15 at the last General Election to 27 in May. Yet, at the first solidarity test set for the 16 new black Labour MPs the result has not been promising.
After veteran Black MP Diane Abbott announced that – in the interest of racial and gender diversity – that she would stand in the all male, pale and stale Labour leadership contest I expected a majority of our MPs to back her. That was what the vast majority of black Congress people in America did when Barack Obama threw his hat into the ring to become US president. But, no. Diane has so far been able to muster just three nominations from her sisters and brother; those of fellow Labour Party Black Sections stalwart Keith Vaz, David Lammy, a neighbouring MP in Tottenham, and just one of the newcomers, the principled Chinyelu Onwurah.
Diane’s seven other nomination come from white MPs. Initially Labour’s acting leader Harriet Harman said she would stay neutral because of her position but bravely urged her comrades in parliament to follow her example and nominate Diane to ensure there was at least one woman candidate.
Hot favourites, the Miliband brothers have already passed the 33 nominations threshold to guarantee a place on the ballot paper. Of the Black MPs, David Miliband has garnered the support of ambitious former member of the government Virendra Sharma and newbies Anas Sarwar, Valerie Vaz and Yasmin Qureshi. And his mildly more left-wing brother Ed has won over Chuka Umunna, Lisa Nandy and Sadiq Khan’s support. Ed Balls is backed by Marsha Singh and Khalid Mahmood. Three Black MPs remain undecided: Mark Hendrick, Rushanara Ali and Shabana Mahmood. I hope, if only in the name of sisterly solidarity that Rushanara and Shabana side with Diane.
The black MPs have got to learn how to play big people’s politics. You do not get respect from white folk by being disunited. The same white folk wax lyrical about Obama as America’s first black president but baulk at the idea of a major political party having a black woman as its leader. If the black MPs had all nominated Diane, no matter what their misgivings about her, they would have presented themselves as a powerful bloc to be reckoned with.
As David Lammy pointed out, who they voted for thereafter would have been less important than the symbolic and historic act of supporting a black sister for Labour’s top job.
By Marc Wadsworth
Chair, Labour Party Black Sections (1986-1988)